What about Starbucks? RDU’s authority to lease property debated in Wake courtroom.

The decision by the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority to lease 105 acres of airport property for a rock quarry has drawn opposition from people who think the forested land should be used for recreation or become part of neighboring Umstead State Park.

But the Wake County Superior Court judge handling the lawsuit seeking to stop the quarry said Thursday that the case isn’t about whether the RDU authority made the right decision.

Instead, Judge Graham Shirley II said his ruling will address one question: Did the airport board have the power to lease mineral rights to Wake Stone Corp., without getting approval from the four local governments that own the airport?

“My job and my job alone is to determine whether RDU airport authority has the authority to enter into a lease, and if they did have the authority, whether they followed the appropriate rules,” Shirley told attorneys for both sides in his courtroom.

The attorneys then spent two hours expanding on their written arguments, often in response to questions from Shirley. This was no broad discussion, instead focusing on the details of various state laws and the definitions of words such as “lease,” “aeronautical” and “airport.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Umstead Coalition, Triangle Off-Road Cyclists (or TORC) and three individuals. They contend that the airport authority needed to get the blessing of the airport’s owners — Raleigh, Durham and Durham and Wake counties — before approving a 25-year mining lease.

Their attorney, Nigle “Tex” Barrow Jr., told Shirley that RDU’s 1939 charter under state law gives its board the power to lease property, but only for “aeronautical” purposes.

“The charter limits it to airports and landing fields,” Barrow said. “I don’t see how they ever have authority under their charter ... to operate a quarry.”

But Mitch Armbruster, an attorney for RDU, cited a state law from the 1950s that granted the airport power to lease property without involving the four local governments. Armbruster said that section of the law gives RDU broad authority to lease property for up to 40 years as long as it doesn’t violate federal regulations and restrictions.

“This lease is not unusual at all. It is completely consistent with other non-aeronautical leases that are entered into by airports around the country,” he said, citing leases for warehouses, oil and gas production and agriculture.

Airport powers

Shirley told the attorneys he had read their written arguments “multiple times,” and summarized the evolving history of airport powers and rights in North Carolina starting in 1929. He quizzed the attorneys on their interpretations of the various statutes and probed the limits of their positions.

At one point, he sparked a discussion about whether Starbucks was an essential aeronautical function and therefore the kind of lease both sides would agree the RDU board had the power to make.

“Is everyone required to have a cup of coffee before they get on an airplane?” Shirley asked.

No, Barrow replied, but unlike a quarry, a coffee shop and other retail outlets in the terminals are part of the airport’s core function.

“It’s aeronautic in that it’s part of the boarding process,” Barrow said. “It’s an incidental process to the operation of the airport.”

Armbruster countered that an aeronautic function is “something that touches the airplane,” and wouldn’t include a Starbucks. But he added that it didn’t matter, because state law delegated the power to run RDU, including negotiate and approve leases of airport property, to the airport authority.

“That’s the reason the General Assembly set up the airport they did,” he said. “They set it up so that the board of the appointees, the delegates of the cities and counties, would make these decisions.”

Shirley said he likely would issue a written ruling in the case within 30 days. Attorneys for the two sides agreed to extend a temporary court order issued last spring that prevents Wake Stone from mining on the property until the lawsuit is resolved.

The company isn’t ready to begin digging yet anyway, said its president, Sam Bratton. Wake Stone plans to begin seeking state mining and environmental permits by the end of the year, and that process could take several months, Bratton said. The company would also need to build a bridge over Crabtree Creek connecting the airport land with its existing quarry off North Harrison Avenue.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.